While the Coachella Valley Firebirds players, coaches and fans were fully immersed in Firebirds-mania here in the desert during their remarkable debut season, it's fair to wonder what was the perception of the team outside of the desert.
Across the AHL, were players on other teams taking notice of what was going on here or were we just in our own bubble?
Well, the newest member of the Firebirds family, Jacob Hayhurst, offered some insight.
"The rest of the league was definitely taking notice, and players were talking and hearing all about what was happening in Coachella," said the 26-year-old Hayhurst, who signed an AHL deal with the Firebirds on Aug. 2. "And then for them to make it all the way to the final and come so close, people saw the sellouts and the atmosphere and what was going on out there."
Hayhurst, an Ontario-born forward who played 24 games for the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds in Massachusetts, had an inside source letting him know what Acrisure Arena was like. His college roommate at the University of Michigan was Nick Pastujov, who played six regular-season and six playoff games for the Firebirds during their inaugural season. Hayhurst said Pastujov had nothing but good things to say about the organization and the atmosphere.
Hayhurst was a free agent this summer and was not re-signed by Springfield. As the days went by, he was starting to wonder what was next, but then his agent called with some good news.
"I hadn't been offered and my agent called and said we have interest from Coachella, and he sort of broke down the organization and said he thought it is a great opportunity," Hayhurst said. "So then I started calling friends, calling buddies and everyone said the culture is great there and I'm really looking forward to being a part of it."
Hayhurst is still on the East Coast and hasn't been out to the Coachella Valley yet. In fact — just like many future Firebirds players last year at this time — Hayhurst has never been to California in his life.
That being said Hayhurst has seen a lot of the country thanks to hockey. Along with the Thunderbirds last year, he was on the ECHL's Worcester Railers. Prior to the 2022-23 season he played for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (love that name).
Now he'll travel west to link up with the defending AHL Western Conference champions and Calder Cup finalist Firebirds. He'll be joining a team with a ton of returning talent that already has a lot of chemistry. He's just hoping he can add something to the successful mix.
"It's definitely an interesting situation joining a team of guys you, for the most part, don't know and they've had a lot of success together," Hayhurst said. "My goal is just to come in there and put my best foot forward, play the right way, work hard and just build chemistry with the guys and make an impact. I'm looking forward to being a part of something special."
The Firebirds' brass caught a glimpse of Hayhurst when he played for Springfield last year, and made a point of remembering that name when free agency came around.
"We watched him play and he showed good speed and tenacity," said Troy Bodie, the Firebirds' director of hockey operations. "He went to the net well. He was intriguing."
Hayhurst, having been on the outside looking in, has a unique perspective on what this upcoming season might be like for the Firebirds.
"This is such a hard league with so many good players, and to see a team like the Firebirds have so much success so fast, I know a lot of teams will have their games against the Firebirds circled on the calendar," Hayhurst said. "We're going to have to be ready because nobody is going to give us a break."
Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: AHL hockey: Jacob Hayhurst joins Firebirds, hopes to be part of something special